Category Archives: Reviews

Mother Tongue by Patricia Forde

MOTHER TONGUE is the standalone follow-up to the award-winning and critically acclaimed THE WORDSMITH (published in North America as THE LIST) by Galway native Patricia Forde.
After global warming came the Melting. Then came Ark.
The new dictator of Ark wants to silence speech for ever. But Letta is the wordsmith, tasked with keeping words alive. Out in the woods, she and the rebels secretly teach children language, music and art.
Now there are rumours that babies are going missing. When Letta makes a horrifying discovery, she has to find a way to save the children of Ark – even if it is at the cost of her own life.

Little Island
Mother Tongue by Patricia Forde, cover illustration by Elissa Webb

Little Island have been publishing some great books, unfortunately all ineligible for CKG because they don’t have offices outside of Eire, but definitely worth reading! Mother Tongue, and predecessor The Wordsmith, are both brilliantly devised stories based in a society founded at the end of the world, after flood waters have risen. Noah, the founder of Ark, has decreed that words were to blame for the situation people find themselves in – empty promises and lies of people in power, words instead of action – so all except the most functional 500 words are banned from use. The Wordsmith may store unused words until people can be trusted with them again (but will they ever?). Obviously the idea of storing words appealed to me greatly, so I jumped at the chance of being on the blog tour. The author Patricia Forde wrote a piece about Words for us:

The Need to Keep Words Alive.

I love dictionaries.
As a child, I was often to be found reading those impressive tomes looking for new words, big words, words to impress. Nowadays, as a writer, I still use dictionaries but now to look for smaller words, simpler words, words that are precise.
But what if we start to lose words?
If we don’t have a word for something can we conceive of it? Can we imagine it? And maybe, more importantly, do we still value that which it represents?
There was a thundering brouhaha some years ago when the Oxford Junior Dictionary removed words like kingfisher, acorn and cowslip from its list and replaced them with words like broadband, blog and voice mail. The dictionary is aimed at seven year olds. People felt that the dictionary was adding to the problem of children being alienated from nature. It seemed that the dictionary didn’t value the thrush, the weasel or the wren as much as it valued the grey world of bureaucracy. Committee, common sense and bullet points all had a place while much of the natural world was sent packing.

But, the dictionary argued, the words they chose to include were the words children were using. They had tracked contemporary usage and reflected their findings in their list of words.

How sad that is. As adults, we have to tolerate a diet of grey sludge when it comes to language. We have to talk about Brexit and hard drives and listen to people going on about journeys they’ve made that aren’t journeys at all, and hear them going forward with this that and the other thing and telling us all about it in bullet points. But children?

Their language should reflect the sacred time that we call childhood. I believe that it should be full of beavers and liquorice and droves of dwarves, elves and goblins. We need to keep those words alive because we need to keep that sense of wonder and awe alive.

Many of the words removed from the Oxford Junior Dictionary had to do with nature. In this time of environmental crisis surely we need to make children more aware of nature and their natural habitat. It should concern us that if children no longer speak about bluebells or brambles it may be because children are becoming increasingly solitary and urban.

Every word in every language represents an entire archaeology and a history of what has gone before. I shudder to imagine a world like the one I created for The Wordsmith and Mother Tongue. A world where people have access to only five hundred words. Letta, my protagonist, says at one stage:

How can we dream if we don’t have words?

I would also ask how can we think? Words give us precision. In this chaotic world we’ve never needed clear thinking more than we do now. We need our leaders to use language like a laser rather than a slurry spreader. We need to cut through the noise, refuse to accept philosophy that can be written as a tweet because it has no complexity, and build a longer list of words – a list that includes all ideas, all languages, all dictionaries.
Let’s make a thundering brouhaha about that!

Patricia Forde

Words Taken Out of The Oxford Junior Dictionary:

Coronation, duchess, duke, emperor, empire, monarch, decade, carol, cracker, holly, ivy, mistletoe, dwarf, elf, goblin, abbey, aisle, altar, bishop, chapel, christen, disciple, minister, monastery, monk, nun, nunnery, parish, pew, psalm, pulpit, saint, sin, devil, vicar.

Adder, ass, beaver, boar, budgerigar, bullock, cheetah, colt, corgi, cygnet, doe, drake, ferret, gerbil, goldfish, guinea pig, hamster, heron, herring, kingfisher, lark, leopard, lobster, magpie, minnow, mussel, newt, otter, ox, oyster, panther, pelican, piglet, plaice, poodle, porcupine, porpoise, raven, spaniel, starling, stoat, stork, terrapin, thrush, weasel, wren.

Acorn, allotment, almond, apricot, ash, bacon, beech, beetroot, blackberry,
blacksmith, bloom, bluebell, bramble, bran, bray, bridle, brook, buttercup, canary, canter, carnation, catkin, cauliflower, chestnut, clover, conker, county, cowslip, crocus, dandelion, diesel, fern, fungus, gooseberry, gorse, hazel, hazelnut, heather, holly, horse chestnut, ivy, lavender, leek, liquorice, manger, marzipan, melon, minnow, mint, nectar, nectarine, oats, pansy, parsnip, pasture, poppy, porridge, poultry, primrose, prune, radish, rhubarb, sheaf, spinach, sycamore, tulip, turnip, vine, violet, walnut, willow

Words put in:

Blog, broadband, MP3 player, voicemail, attachment, database, export, chatroom, bullet point, cut and paste, analogue.

Celebrity, tolerant, vandalism, negotiate, interdependent, creep, citizenship, childhood, conflict, common sense, debate, EU, drought, brainy, boisterous, cautionary tale, bilingual, bungee jumping, committee, compulsory, cope, democratic, allergic, biodegradable, emotion, dyslexic, donate, endangered, Euro.

Apparatus, food chain, incisor, square number, trapezium, alliteration, colloquial, idiom, curriculum, classify, chronological, block graph.

Mother Tongue, the sequel to The Wordsmith, has just been published by Little Island and they are both available from their website (thankyou for sending me copies of both!). Founded by Ireland’s first Children’s Laureate, Siobhán Parkinson, Little Island Books has been publishing books for children and teenagers since 2010. They specialise in publishing new Irish writers and illustrators, and also have a commitment to publishing books in translation.

For a sneak peek of Mother Tongue, download this free sample:

Clouds Cannot Cover Us

Clouds Cannot Cover Us: Poems by Jay Hulme

October will bring us this really powerful collection of poetry for teenagers, by young transgender poet Jay Hulme. Troika asked him to create a semi-autobiographical narrative, and included are reworked poems he wrote while at high school. He has said that when considering what to include he realised that what he’d wanted as a teenager, and what he wanted to give to teenagers, was the truth, and devised a two part story.

Being trans means that my life does feel almost like it comes in two halves. I have lived in this world as two people: The person I was before; angry, confused, violent, trying to find out what was wrong, trying to find my place in a world that didn’t want me. And the person I am now; proud, confident, at peace with myself, trying to forge a future to be proud of. With that in mind, I divided the book into two parts. The first half is filled with problems, anger, and confusion, and the poems in turn are often filled with industrial and urban imagery, dark, and claustrophobic. The second half is filled with hope, change, and growth – the poems here are often filled with natural imagery, they are lighter, softer, quieter – kinder.

Jay Hulme

No issue is out of bounds, anything he thought of as a teenager is included, some induce anger, some tears, some snorts of recognition, some a smile…and some all of the above. If I had to pick one favourite from each part, the one that made me stop and stare without moving on for a few minutes was his response to the Islamophobic attack at Christchurch earlier this year. That is towards the end of part 1, which is full of rage and sadness and despair at injustice. In part 2, possibly verging on soppy (which is very not me and yet it had me crying happy tears on a bus) is ‘Just the Small Things’ about the every day things that make you happy. Bonus mention though for ‘The Meaning of Stories’, which may resonate with many a reader, particularly I’d think readers of this blog (thank you so much Jay for letting me post it in full here):

THE MEANING OF STORIES


Perhaps it is true that none of my heroes exist,
summed up on a list entitled “fictional characters”.
My life lessons come from the mouths
of people paid to pretend they are someone they’re not,
but I can’t forget what they have taught me.


Because when words mean something, they stay,
no matter where they came from.
So who cares if I live my life by a line
issued from the mouth of Gandalf the Grey, on a film set,
it doesn’t mean it’s worth less than something
said by someone who actually existed.
Because attribution is overshadowed by meaning,
and the fact that these words stay with me
means more than the circumstances
under which they were uttered.


So if fiction is the foundation
on which I build my life, I can promise you
that my turrets will reach the sky,
before yours reach my dungeons.
Because fiction holds within it
the promise of a better world;
and I believe,
not just because I can,
but because I have to.

Jay Hulme
Jay Hulme

Jay Hulme is an award winning poet and performer from Leicester, Winner of Slambassadors 2015, and finalist in the 2016 Roundhouse Poetry Slam. He has recently branched out into children’s poetry, and his work was Highly Commended in the 2018 CLiPPA Awards. He also works as an ambassador for Inclusive Minds, promoting inclusion and diversity in children’s publishing, and doing sensitivity reads to ensure depictions of trans people in books are both accurate and unoffensive.

Thank you Jay for the pdf of Clouds Cannot Cover Us, coming soon from Troika.

Max Kowalski Didn’t Mean It

The problem with Wales, he thought, was that it was too far away.
But that was the point. To leave Southend behind. To get so far that no one would think to look for them there.

Max wants to be just like his dad – fun, loud and strong.
Instead, he always seems to be accidentally getting into fights and breaking things.
But when his dad starts bringing home mysterious boxes, even more mysterious wads of cash starts turning up.
Then Dad disappears. And it’s up to Max to look after his sisters until he comes home.
When they run away to a remote village in Wales, he’s convinced that no one will find them.
He’s Max Kowalski. Of course he can look after three kids with no grownups around!
Although, he can’t stop thinking about where Dad really went. And the whispers of a golden dragon, asleep under the Welsh mountains…

Puffin
Max Kowalski Didn’t Mean It

Over on twitter last month, Louie Stowell wrote the review “If Jacqueline Wilson ganged up with Alan Garner and remixed A Monster Calls, with dragons. Powerful and deep.” and I was immediately sold. Brilliantly, Susie Day, the author of said book, then offered to send me one of her author copies and I bit off her hand! It was as brilliant as expected, with warmth and humour and fabulous characters in pretty dire but totally believable circumstances. After reading it, I asked Susie if she would answer some questions for the blog:

In your books you focus on “issues” that are relevant to lots of children but often missing from children’s fiction, always beautifully encased in a fabulous story. What prompted you to tackle toxic masculinity? ‘Issue books’ always sounds such a miserable label, doesn’t it? Like All Bran instead of Coco Pops. I hope my books are a blend of both (although less disgusting than that sounds). I’m always trying to write about children whose lives feel genuinely reflective of the world we live in – which means acknowledging the challenges of poverty, or grief, or homophobia. But it also means celebrating the ways we live through all that stuff: through daft jokes, and family, and love.
We’ve made big cultural strides in celebrating girls who want to do traditionally ‘masculine’ things, from playing pirates and getting muddy to careers in STEM. But boys choosing stereotypically ‘girly’ things – being creative or sensitive, or being open to emotional expression and relying on friends for support – remains a bigger sticking point. When I worked at a boarding school for teenagers we had some mental health training, which showed me some really shocking stats. Suicide is the #1 cause of death among men aged 20-49 in the UK. We’re letting all kids down if we don’t try to identify why that’s happening, and work to change it.

You generally have female protagonists, how different was your approach when writing Max? This question really made me think! Max is a character who often won’t admit what he really feels or thinks, and wants to put up a front. But I’ve written lots of girls like that too – like Sammie in The Secrets of Sam and Sam, or Clover in Pea’s Book of Holidays. Max has ideas that he associates that very strongly with being a boy. But Sammie or Billie Bright: they bump up against the ‘required’ behaviours of being a girl a lot too. It’s the same problem, but with different expectations.
The challenge Max has is that he thinks of himself in one way – big, tough, capable – and that doesn’t match his reality. The challenge for me as a writer is how to show that. But the characters I love to read about most are the ones who are figuring themselves out while we read them. I loved finding the visible symbols of that when he’s not a boy who would articulate it: the trainers he covets, buys, then throws away; the jumper his best friend’s mum lends him, that he keeps on wearing.

The scenes in the climbing centre were very convincing, did you have to do a lot of research or are you a climber? My girlfriend is laughing at this question. This book was written after we went on a walking holiday in Snowdonia together. She’s been walking there for years; I’m an experienced hiker but with a pretty emphatic fear of heights. She took me up a mountain called Glyder Fach, without mentioning it involved a scramble (sort of midway between a walk and a climb, where you need to use your hands but don’t need ropes). We got to the top – but I did cry on the way. That’s the mountain in the book, with a name change and a little geographical creativity.
She helped me out with understanding climbing technique, and I watched the climbers on the rocks alongside the road up to Pen Y Pass, the start of the main Snowdon route. But I will never be a climber!

Castell Y Gwynt on Glyder Fach in Snowdonia by Balochdesign

Have you had much feedback from children about the story? What do they pick up on the most? Max as a character: that’s what kids seem to connect with. A friend of mine’s son was running round the park being ‘brave’, because that’s what Max is. I think the rising stakes help turn the pages too.

What kind of events do you enjoy doing most with children/in schools? I love school visits, whether it’s a KS2 assembly or classroom workshops. Like most authors, I’ve also done festivals to a roomful of babies, surprise 13-year-olds, and three people who are asleep, which certainly hones the improvisational skills…
Assembly-style sessions are interactive, with live storytelling and games. I’m always – I mean this genuinely, I’ve never not had this experience – awed by the creativity that’s waiting to be uncapped. But I think it’s important that I’m not there as a teacher. An author visit can really support curriculum, and I often tailor sessions to particular objectives, like reading for pleasure or editing. But it should also inspire in ways that are bigger and broader: that can just celebrate why reading and writing matters, and why books are relevant for all of us.
I don’t offer CPD for staff, but you might find my books, and my presence, useful for SRE.

What are you reading at the moment and who would you recommend it to? I’ve just inhaled Louie Stowell’s The Dragon in the Library (7-9), which is all joy: clever, inclusive, highly-illustrated and a smart way to persuade non-readers they might like books after all. Gabby Hutchinson Crouch’s Darkwood is a pure Pratchett-for-kids fairytale: great for advanced middle- grade readers who like talking spiders and laughing out loud. And I’m in the middle of A Pocketful of Stars by Aisha Bushby, which is gently breaking my heart, while also making me really happy to see fiction about gaming. More please.

What’s next for you? Something I can’t talk about yet, sorry!
I’ve also written a short story for a new Doctor Who anthology called The Target Storybook, about the Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) from the classic series. Every book I’ve written has a Doctor Who reference, so it was pretty sweet not having to find a place to fit that in for once. The book’s out in October, and I can’t wait to read the other stories.

Susie Day

Huge thanks to Susie for the copy of the book and the responses for the blog!

Max Kowalski Didn’t Mean It is out now!

Jelly by Clare Rees

Martha and her friends have been drifting on a giant killer jellyfish since sea levels rose and the world ended.
Life is gloopy, toxic and full of tentacles. It’s also really boring.
More than anything, Martha wants to escape – but what ’s waiting for her on the shore? She doesn’t know it, but life is about to get much stickier …

Chicken House
Jelly by Clare Rees

When I read the blurb for this book I thought “this sounds so ridiculous that it just has to be good”, and it was a really entertaining read. I was most taken with how convincing the teens’ reactions to everything going on were, and what they dreamed of for the future. What I didn’t realise, until I was sent this piece of writing for the blog from Clare, was just how much it was influenced by the teenagers that she works with! What an amazing way to write a book!

Writing a book alongside your intended audience is brilliant fun. But it can also have surprising consequences. Jelly started out as a teaching resource, as a way of getting my students engaged with their creative writing lessons. I wrote alongside them, but also shaped sections around their needs- so I would often start lessons by giving students extracts from my book to correct. I filled the extracts with common errors for the students to find and as they identified them we discussed how the errors could be fixed and improved. Identifying and improving those mistakes in their own work would become the lesson focus for students. When the book was published my students had a question and answer session with me. When they asked these questions none of them had read the complete book- so their questions are based entirely on the extracts used during their lessons.
My students’ questions:

  1. [Asked by a student called James] Is there a character called James? If so, was it based on me? If not, why not? Yes there is! The character is not based on you, sadly. When I started writing the book I choose the name because I didn’t then teach anybody called James. Using the book in a school, it was particularly hard to find names which were appropriate for the characters in the book but which were not going to cause problems with my students. The main character, Martha, has the same name as my daughter. This is because when I was writing the book in the evenings she was very little and wanted me to sit outside her room until she fell asleep. Therefore the name, ‘Martha’, was particularly on my mind as I wrote. One of the teachers in the book, Dr Jones, is also named after one of our Biology teachers. While the character is very different from our teacher, Year 9 wanted the character to have the name of the teacher who had taught them in the lesson before mine.
  2. What motivated you to try and get it published? Boredom. I did not go through the traditional publishing routes, but entered a competition [The Times/Chickenhouse competition] at the end of the Autumn term in 2017. I was sitting in a coffee shop with a cake as I finished writing the book. I didn’t really know what to do with the book, so I googled ‘competitions’, found this one, and decided I might as well enter. I didn’t bother sending the book off to any agents or publishers, so it has never actually been rejected. I am also now a firm believer in entering competitions!
  3. Did you ever experience writers’ block, and if so, how did you overcome it? I don’t believe in writers’ block. I think it’s exactly the same feeling you get at the start of a big piece of homework. Nobody wants to write, and at the end of a long teaching day I definitely don’t want to sit down and do any work. But if you sit down and start, somehow it gets better and words do appear. Each evening I sat down and did some writing I always felt glad I had- however difficult it was to start.
  4. Is there an event in your life which inspired you to write this? I was teaching our current Year 9s creative writing (back when they were in Year 7) and they were a bit stuck on the planning. So I decided to plan a book for them at the start of a lesson, but then I thought it looked quite interesting so I went off and wrote it. That week I had seen two interesting things:
    • A youtube clip in which a member of Donald Trump’s team said that sea levels rising wasn’t a problem, because it had already happened in the Bible and we’d been fine.
    • I was reading a Viking saga in which a kraken was described as being like an island which people could live on
  5. Have you always been interested in mythical sea creatures? In no way. But I do have a phobia of shellfish, which I have received hypnotherapy for. When discussing this book, the publishers wanted to meet in a seafood restaurant because they thought it was hilarious and topical. It took me until after the main course before I told them that crab and lobster shells terrify me. Also, my editor wanted me to draw a picture of the kriks for her [my crustacean monsters]. Unfortunately I found them so disgusting that I was unable to do this. At some points while writing I needed to check what crabs and lobsters look like. Again, I was unable to look at pictures so had to
    get my son to look at them for me while I asked him questions.
  6. What do the characters do when they get their periods? Yes, as in most fiction this is not mentioned (despite the fact that I know most women and teenage girls spend a significant part of their life thinking about it!). I did consider this. In the old days I understand that women often used to use rags. There are rags mentioned in the book, so I assumed that they would use these.
  7. If it’s been climate change do the characters need suncream? Yes they do – although not all of the characters have white skin, so they don’t all need loads. I haven’t included this information in the book, but I had planned for the jellyfish slime to have suncream-like properties. It would also work as a moisturiser. I imagined the characters would smear it on their skin to protect themselves from the sun.
  8. You changed the kriks [crustacean monsters]. Why? When I wrote them in school they were more humanoid. My editors pointed out to me that when the central characters get into battle with them, this means it’s like they’re killing humans. I hadn’t wanted to write a book about murder, so I thought I’d change the monsters!
  9. Why did you let Dr Jones live? [Originally Dr Jones, the Biology teacher, was killed in the book because my students wanted the character to die] Actually I needed the character. She was so crucial to the story that when I killed her off I had to invent another, very similar character who lived until the end. My editor pointed out it would be easier if Dr Jones just lived. Plus, I have to share a staffroom with the real Biology teacher and didn’t want her to be cross with me.
  10. Do you think your book could happen in reality? I hope not! Giant crustaceans would be a very, very bad thing. However, sea levels are rising and we’re not planning for climate change in the way that I think we should be. I think that is going to result in people dying, and I think it is going to change the world. We are also going to have to change the way we treat the world, as our place in it is going to be affected.
Clare Rees

Huge thanks to Chicken House books for sending me a copy, Nina for organising the guest post, and Clare for writing it!

Jelly is out now!

Chris Riddell: a Guardian of Magic

For as long as anyone can remember, children have looked up at billowing clouds in the sky and made a wish on a cloud horse. But no one has seen one.
Until now.

Macmillan Children’s
The Cloud Horse Chronicles

It is always a good day when a new Chris Riddell is published, and an even better day when it is the beginning of a new series! The Cloud Horse Chronicles: Guardians of Magic introduces us to three unsuspecting heroes as they receive magical gifts. The illustrations are perfectly placed and really bring the characters to life, but I particularly love the cross sections of where the children are living when we first meet them. PR for the book says it is reminiscent of Tolkein’s and Pullman’s worlds, but it mainly makes me want to re-read the Edge Chronicles (written by Paul Stewart and illustrated by Chris Riddell)! Readers will spot lots of nods to classic fairytales, tweaked in very pleasing ways.

I called this post “Guardian of Magic” because Chris Riddell really is one. Obviously, I am entirely biased in writing a Chris Riddell review, because we Librarians love him. He’s won the Kate Greenaway medal an unprecedented 3 times (not just because he’s Chris Riddell, honestly, he’s also not won it with lots of his books…) and he has long been an ardent supporter of libraries, often illustrating quotes (often from Neil Gaiman) about their importance. He’s been involved in talks with government in the Libraries All Party Parliamentary Group and as Children’s Laureate 2015-2017 he wrote an open letter to the then head of the Department for Education, Justine Greening, to make a plea on behalf of school libraries to ring-fence funding and set out standards for library provision that schools must follow. He’s been particularly vocal about their importance in schools and has been the President of the SLA (School Libraries Association) 2017-2020.

I could quite easily just copy and paste lots of his illustrations in this blog post, but I urge you to simply do an image search for “Chris Riddell library” to see the dozens of amazing and inspiring cartoons. This summer he tweeted a series of Owls he has created for the SLA and I couldn’t resist just sharing one here:

The Guardians of Magic is published on the 19th September 2019| Hardback, £12.99| Macmillan Children’s Books|ISBN 9781447277972

Huge thanks to Macmillan for sending a review copy!

Bearmouth

“Time down here is a diffrent thing see. Lyke on the other side you sees seesons change, leeves grow bold an grene an fayde to gold an red, then drop off and kirl up and disappear into snoe. But Bearmouth is black. Black an warm an dark an wet an full o coal. All days all weeks all year. Forever and ever. Amen. “

Newt has been living and working in Bearmouth from a tender age. Daily life in the mine is full of strict routine and a quiet acceptance of how things are – until, that is, Devlin arrives and starts to ask questions. Newt fears any unrest will bring heightened oppression from the Master and his overseers. Life is hard enough and there is no choice about that. Or is there? Newt is soon looking at Bearmouth with a fresh perspective – one that does more than whisper about change: one that is looking for a way out. 

Liz Hyder’s extraordinary debut novel draws on her research into the working conditions of children in Victorian mines and shows a young person daring to challenge the status quo. In Bearmouth, she has created an imagined world with its own dialect, riven with social injustice and populated by characters who don’t simply accept things because they are told they must.

Pushkin Press
Bearmouth by Liz Hyder, cover design by Yeti Lambregts

Bearmouth is Liz Hyder‘s debut novel, told through the voice of a young child trapped working in a mine, barely remembering life outside. It is both literally and figuratively dark, really dark, with some quite harrowing scenes, but also gripping, hopeful, and thought provoking. I read it in one sitting, taking a while to get used to the voice (Newt is writing it, with letters lessons slowly improving the spelling throughout) but then racing through to see what lies ahead for these wonderful (and wonderfully awful) characters. The conditions are terrible but also not unrealistic, the writing really does create the oppressive atmosphere of the tunnels and relentlessness of the workers’ lives, and the doubt sparked by the appearance of a new boy spirals quickly. Newt begins to question the way things are, whether it is actually blasphemous to want conditions to improve, whether it isn’t really the wishes of The Mayker that keep them underground…

Liz has written this piece for Teen Librarian, about the importance of rebellion and asking questions

My nan, my mum’s mum, who died when I was little, was famous for asking ‘who says?’ A tall, formidable woman with a mischievous grin and a fondness for doing impressions, she looks back at me like a mirror image from old photos. I strongly resemble her on the outside but I also think I’m like her on the inside too. Asking questions is always important and more so than ever in our era of fake news and auto-generated bots. ‘Who says?’ encourages us to ask why someone is saying something, what they might hope to get out of it and what vested interest they might have.

Newt, in my debut novel Bearmouth, is an asker of questions. Set down a Victorian-esque working coal mine in which the workers not only toil away in the dark but also live down there, Bearmouth is a world of danger. As Newt learns to read and write, the curiosity within also rises and Newt starts asking more questions. Why are things this way? Why, even if it has always been this way, should things continue like this? ‘Who says?’

The act of asking a question can, in itself, be an act of rebellion and is scattered throughout fairy tales and fiction as such. From the child in the crowd who asks why the Emperor is wearing no clothes to Oliver Twist asking for more, questions are, in themselves, powerful things and no-one uses questions more keenly than children and young people. Their thirst for knowledge, their willingness and desire to push at the edges of what is and isn’t allowed, what is and isn’t acceptable, is something that we as adults should perhaps look to a little more often.

Books open up other worlds. Whether they be real or fantastical, they allow us to explore ideas and themes through their pages. They allow us to travel across time and space, encountering characters that live and breathe, lingering on in our memories long after we’ve turned that last page. Books can inspire and enlighten us, make us snort with laughter, move us to tears and even fill us with courage. The books I read as a child and as a teenager – from Hunter Davies’s Flossie Teacake series and Michael Rosen’s Quick, Let’s Get Out of Here, to pretty much all of Paula Danziger’s witty novels featuring awkward teens – made me feel that I wasn’t alone, whether that was in my clumsiness or my creativity, in my sense of humour or in the way I viewed the world. Books encouraged me to be braver in myself, to think that I might be a person who could camp out in the wilds like in the Lone Pine adventures or have the bravery to stand up to sinister forces like in The Dark is Rising series. Books shaped my world, made me look at things around me differently, when I looked up from the page, my own world had tilted on its axis. The impossible became just a little bit more possible.

I hope that Bearmouth will make readers look at the world a little differently, to remember the real children that worked away for long hours in the Victorian mines, to remember that there are children right now working in mines in other countries around the world. Just because something is not visible does not mean that it does not exist…

I hope readers will come to view Newt as someone who, with courage, has the ability to inspire and to change things. I hope it helps readers realise they can make a difference themselves, they too can push for and encourage change. When I first started writing the novel, I hadn’t heard of Greta Thunberg but there is a line in the novel, the line that ended up on the front cover, in Newt’s somewhat unconventional spelling, that reoccurs and resonates throughout the story – ‘it only taykes one person to start a revolushun.’ It is an empowering thought and one that I hope will inspire those who read the book.

Liz Hyder, author of Bearmouth

Bearmouth by Liz Hyder is published in hardback by Pushkin Children’s Books on 19 September at £12.99

(thank you for sending Teen Librarian a copy for review!)

That Asian Kid

Despite his hard work and brains, Jeevan, is doing badly in his GCSE English literature class. His teacher, Mrs Greaves, dislikes him intensely and Jeevan is convinced that he is the victim of racial prejudice. Can he stand up for what’s right? When he comes upon her in the woods outisde school in a compromising situation with another teacher, Jeevan can’t help but film the scene on his phone. With this secret new ammunition at his fingertips – dare he upload it to social media?

That Asian Kid will make you cross. Livid. Spluttering with indignation on Jeevan’s behalf. Despairing that adults could even behave this way but knowing full well that it isn’t that unusual. Jeevan and his friends are great characters, all “good” kids doing well at school, from a wonderfully portrayed mix of backgrounds, and their interactions are so believable I could see them in any playground. I really enjoyed his relationship with his parents, and grandmother, so concerned for him and never doubting him, even if they do begin by think he should have kept his head down and not cause any trouble. I was really pleased to be invited to be part of the blog tour, and to get to ask Savita some questions!

Hi Savita!

Thanks so much for inviting me on the blog today. It’s such an exciting time when a new book is published and getting to talk about it on a blog tour with amazing bloggers is such a treat!

That Asian Kid is a stunningly blunt title, it really packs a punch and is perfect for setting the tone. Did you have it in mind from the beginning or did it come to you as the story evolved?

Strangely, it was a very hard book to find the right title for. I had a list of about thirty titles, and everyone I asked liked a different one. That Asian Kid wasn’t among the list, which is odd because it was staring me in the face. When it suddenly came to me I knew instantly that it was the right one to go with. However, it does seem to be a bit of a marmite title – you either love it or hate it! But whichever side you fall on – it is intriguing.

I imagine an unfortunate number of teens will recognise the situation as something that is happening to them. What would your advice be to them?

It’s very sad and infuriating, and I have no doubt that some teens will recognise this situation. I recognise it all too well from Primary School where I was bullied by a group of girls and pushed and punched to the ground. I kicked out from the ground and when the teacher saw me kicking, I got the blame for provoking the other girls. My form teacher put me in the Dunces Corner, telling me I was a stupid and nasty girl. She made me sit there for the rest of the year. I was eight years old. It was a traumatic experience and it scarred me for a very long time. So my advice would be to tell your parents, and if you cannot tell your parents, then tell another adult you trust. Let them help and support you, and fight the battle for you.

Have you had much opportunity to talk to teens about it yet?

I’ve talked about my book with my teen reading group and they’re all really excited about reading it. I got the opportunity to talk about it at the SLA/YLG conference earlier this year too, and all the librarians at my talk were very keen to get their hands on a copy of the books! I’m really looking forward to going into schools and talking about the book. The moral dilemma that Jeevan faces in the book is one that, I think, will prompt many interesting discussions!

If you go into schools, what kind of event do you most like to do?

I love running creative writing workshops. As a child, although I wrote stories, I had no confidence in my creative writing ability. I think lots of kids feel the same – particularly as the English curriculum is so prescriptive about how to write. What’s happened is that the freedom to explore ideas in stories and to write them the way you want to write them has been eroded. So I run creative writing workshops that show kids a variety of story formats and then allows them the freedom to write what they want to write, and how they want to write it. I also love doing author talks and Q and A’s with kids. Most schools I visit are ethnically mixed – and most of the non-white kids have often said to me that they have never seen a BAME author before, or read a book by a BAME author. That’s sad to hear. So anything I can do to inspire kids to write, to be what they want to be, to see possibilities in their future they may not have seen, is time well spent.

I love Jeevan’s grandmother & her snacks. What’s your favourite of her comfort foods?

Indian grandmothers love to have something sweet with a cup of tea! You cannot beat a chocolate digestive and a cup of tea. A close second would be sukkapare, which are sweet, or matya, which are savoury but equally delicious – but they have to be homemade!

How much did you know about video editing before you wrote this book?

I actually knew very little. I have a friend who makes TV programmes, so I had a chat with him. And not surprisingly, lots of teens seem to know a fair bit about how to edit a video they’ve taken on their phone…

What are you reading at the moment and who would you recommend it to?

I have a towering to-be-read pile of books! There are so many great books that have come out this year and it’s tough deciding which books go to the top of the pile! I have just finished Sita Brahmachari’s beautiful Middle Grade book Where the River Runs Gold, and Patrice Lawrence’s Rose, Interrupted. I highly recommend both books by these amazing writers. I have All the Things we Never Said by Yasmin Rahman to read next. It’s YA so it’s right up my street. I’ve been reading the Daevabad Trilogy by S A Chakraborty – The City of Brass and The Kingdom of Copper are the first two books – and they are brilliant if you like YA fantasy with a middle eastern twist and a great heroine! I’ve also got The Tatooist of Auschwitz to read, and then there is the new Marcus Zusak, Bridge of Clay. And then I have the Cemetery of Forgotten series by Carlos Ruiz Zafon to finish. The first book in the series, The Shadow of the Wind, is one of my all time favourite books, and suitable for teenagers and young adults. I think I should stop there as there are so many great books out there that I want to read!

Any hints of what we can expect from you next?

I’m not going to give much away at the moment! I’m working on a couple of quite different projects. Obviously there is another YA book that I’m working on, but I’m also working on two other projects – a younger teen book, and I’m researching another project too, but that’s top secret! If your readers would like to keep up to date with my news, they can find me on Twitter @savitakalhan or my website www.savitakalhan.com. I love to hear from my readers, so please tweet me or get in touch. I hope you all love That Asian Kid as much as I enjoyed writing it!

Thanks so much for having me on Teen Librarian blog!

Savita Kalhan

Savita Kalhan was born in India, but has lived in the UK most of her life. She graduated from Aberystwyth University with a degree in Politics and Philosophy. She was a Batik artist before going to live in the Middle East for several years where she taught English and began to write. Now living in North London, she spends her time writing, playing tennis, and growing vegetables and super-hot chillies on her allotment. Savita runs a very enthusiastic teen reading group at her local library in Finchley, who enjoy reading and talking about books as much as she does.

Her debut teen novel, The Long Weekend, was published by Andersen Press, and is a tense thriller about two boys who are abducted after school. It was short-listed for the Fabulous Book Award. Her YA novel The Girl in the Broken Mirror was published by Troika Books in 2018, and her next YA novel, That Asian Kid, was published on 29th August 2019. If you would like to know more about Savita, you’ll find her on Twitter @savitakalhan, or visit her website

The song of the canary… a review of Snowflake, AZ by Marcus Sedgwick

Ash boards a Greyhound bus heading to the place where Bly was last seen: Snowflake, Arizona. Six thousand feet up in the wide red desert, Ash meets Mona, her dog, her goat, and her neighbors, and finds stepbrother Bly, too.

In their ramshackle homes, the walls lined with tinfoil, almost all the residents of Snowflake are sick. But this isn’t any ordinary sickness: the chemicals and technologies of modern life are poisoning them. They call themselves canaries, living warning signs that humans have pushed the environment too far, except no one seems to be taking their warnings seriously. The healthy “normies” of Snowflake have written them off as a bunch of eccentrics, and when Ash too falls ill, the doctor’s response is “It’s all in your mind.”

Snowflake, AZ contemplates illness and health—both our own and our planet’s. As Ash lives through a cycle of illness and recovery and loss, the world beyond is succumbing to its own affliction: a breakdown of civilization only distantly perceived by Ash and the isolated residents of Snowflake, from which there may or may not be a chance for recovery. This provocative novel by one of our most admired storytellers explores the resilience of love and community in the face of crisis.

Marcus Sedgwick has never let me down! He has written in a variety of genres under the YA banner and his latest, Snowflake, AZ is a timely warning of a planet and population under threat from ourselves.

While reading the book I kept my notebook open and jotted down things I wanted to find out more about (Snowflake Arizona, Monsanto, Glyphosphate, MCS, EI, Tennessee Fainting Goats and so much more).

The relationships between Ash, Bly, Mona and within the community as a whole are beautifully written; their struggles with coping and interdependence put a human face on the slow-motion collapse that is occurring around the world!.

This book is a phenomenal, scary read, it is a warning – for everyone, but aimed at the current generation of young adult readers that will hopefully take note do something in the face of the inaction and untelligence of their elders!

It tells the truth in a wrapper of fiction, and, if you pay attention (note-taking optional) while you read, you will learn something.

Useful Links:

Undiagnosis (newsletter by Marcus Sedgwick – the latest one is about Snowflake, AZ and a fascinating interview)

Allergic to life: the Arizona residents ‘sensitive to the whole world’ (Guardian article)

What is Multiple Chemical Sensitivity?

Snowflake, Arizona

Starting School!

Instead of a Back To School post for teens, here’s a First Time at School post on behalf of Bea, who is heading to Reception class next week! We didn’t intentionally read starting school stories but we snagged one from Walker (thanks Jo), were sent one by AlannaMax (thanks Fay), and picked a recently published Little Tiger title up at the library (thanks Stock Manager)!

Getting ready for school with The Pigeon, Lulu and Pirates!
The Pigeon Has to Go to School by Mo Willems

If you have never read one of Mo Willem’s Pigeon books then I envy the joy you will experience when you open one for the first time. I owned them all (that had been published so far obv.) before I even had a Bea, so imagine my excitement when I saw that this was being published at the most perfect time! I was at Walker for a YLG London evening and was allowed to snaffle it as an extra goody. Those of you who have read a Pigeon book might guess what mode of transport makes an appearance…

Lulu’s First Day by Anna McQuinn and Rosalind Beardshaw
(apologies for the terrible photo but I didn’t notice until after bedtime!)

Those of you who follow me on twitter may already know how much I love Lulu (and her little brother Zeki). This is a wonderful addition to the collection of stories about her life. It is simply a step by step account of how a first day goes, but with fantastic little touches that bring it to life and make it so much more than just a ‘first experiences’ book. The family is gorgeous and ordinary, and the children she meets at preschool are diverse and adorable.

Pirates Don’t Go To School by Alan MacDonald and Magda Brol

Pirates Don’t Go To School is a very silly but great fun tale of a young pirate who persuades his family that he should go to school. They’re worried for him because there are too many rotten rules and scary teachers and nothing piratical, and his day starts off pretty badly as he accidentally releases his ship’s parrot into school, but things end up ok!

That Asian Kid – Savita Kalhan

Fifteen year old Jeevan is getting top grades for every subject except English. He suspects that his teacher, Mrs. Greaves, is unfairly marking him down. But he has no way of proving it, and even his best friends Dread and Sandi think he is over-reacting.

When Jeevan stumbles upon Mrs. Greaves talking about him with his History teacher, Mr. Green, he decides to record them. Then, to his horror, they start getting it on!

Now Jeevan is in possession of a radioactive video that he could use against Mrs. Greaves. But he’s caught in a huge dilemma . . . should he upload the video, or not?

As a complex game of move and counter-move escalates between Jeevan and Mrs. Greaves, the decision is taken out of his hands – with dire consequences. Jeevan’s life begins to fall apart. Does he have the winning moves to outwit and expose his arch nemesis?

That Asian Kid is an intelligent, gripping, fast-paced story of one boy’s battle against racism and for the right to be treated like everyone else.

Review:

I have met Savita several times over the years (we both know a bunch of the same people) and I have been a fan of her work since reading The Long Weekend (soon to be republished by Troika Books). Her writing has always gripped me but she has blown me away with That Asian Kid!

This book is a hard-hitting and timely read, shining a light on the bigotry and racism faced by so many people of colour. It shows how people have dealt with racist behaviour; from new arrivals keeping your head down and swallowing it because there was nothing else to do to the second and third generations making decisions to take a stand against the unfairness of it all, finding allies.

That Asian Kid is not a straightforward story of good people standing up to bigots, rather it is a subtle and multilayered tale that questions our prejudices and makes us look within ourselves and interrogate the decisions we would make if we had the opportunity to publicly shame someone that had done us wrong and defend a person we respected and admired.

It would have been so easy for this book to have been dragged down by the weight of the subject but it is uplifting; from Jeevan’s interactions with his grandmother (my favourite character), to the support from his friends and family, the story is shot through with humour and some of the best teen dialogue I have read in ages!

I have not even mentioned the tension I felt as I was reading the book, it might have taken a bit longer than it did but I honestly could not put it down as I needed to know what would happen next. Honestly it was more of a thriller than many of the thrillers I have read recently!

At the end of the story I was left feeling drained, but satisfied. Much like real life not everything was tied up neatly and presented to us but fir the story it was enough! That being said I still wanted to read more and hope that Savita will revisit the characters she introduced me to in the opening pages!

Reading develops empathy, reading That Asian Kid will give an insight to many readers to the experiences of others. It will let those who see themselves in Jeevan and his friends know that they are not alone in what they have experienced (or are experiencing).

No-one who reads it will be left unmoved!

That Asian Kid was written by Savita Kalhan and published by Troika Books – it is available now!